Why We Need to Stop Putting Young Athletes in a Box
As youth sports become increasingly competitive, the pressure to specialize and dominate in one sport has never been higher.
We worry that a star player will get injured if she’s playing another sport in the offseason. We worry that a player with great potential will plateau because he is spending his offseason learning a different sport, instead of building key skills for what we have deemed his “best” sport.
But, if we want to develop A+ players with a love for sports and physical activity, not to mention avoid overuse injuries, we should be encouraging youth to try different sports – instead of discouraging. Here's why:
1. An enhanced, diversified skill set.
Every sport emphasizes different skills, muscle groups and movements – baseball works your hand-eye coordination, while hockey develops your stick work and response time. Swimming expands range of motion, while gymnastics improves flexibility and dancing helps to refine rhythm and precision. Though each sport has its own skills focus, the more well-rounded your skills, strength and flexibility are, the more competitive and versatile you will be on the field.
Not convinced? MLL All-Star Chris Mattes played both soccer and lacrosse well into high school before choosing lacrosse in college. He credits his years playing soccer with making him a stronger lacrosse player.
“Lacrosse is super fast-paced, while soccer is a little more methodical,” says Mattes. “Playing soccer helped refine my footwork and challenged me to be thoughtful about my movements, even in the heat of an intense lacrosse play when you gotta make a quick call.”
Still not convinced? UWLX attacker and Team USA champ Michelle Tumolo played soccer, hockey, basketball and softball as a kid. She didn’t even start playing lacrosse until high school, but her experience across sports helped to cultivate an aggressive, thoughtful playing style that’s earned her praise from coaches and players across the country.
“The opportunities to be creative in lacrosse are endless,” says Tumolo. “I like to pick up a contested ground ball by tapping it through my legs, boxing out and having a clear one-on-none ground ball because I’ve moved it into a space where there isn’t a defender. It's kind of like dribbling in basketball."
2. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
When you put all your time and energy into one sport, it’s easy to burn out and lose your passion for the game. Taking a break and re-directing energy to a different sport, whether it’s pick-up or club, actually helps to fuel and maintain love of the game.
Not convinced? "When I was younger, my dad would make my brother and I break for the summer,” recalls Alex Carpenter, forward for the U.S. Women's National Hockey Team. “Because of that, when the season started up again in September, we were always excited to get back on the ice and get to it!”
Still not convinced? Mattes echoes this sentiment - when he was coaching, he found that constant focus on lacrosse led to mental burn-out among his players, so he encouraged them to engage in other sports. "It's amazing what a game of pick-up football can do for a bunch of lacrosse players. The guys who choose to engage in different sports brought greater energy and creativity to the field."
3. Elevated game IQ and ability to identify weak points.
Playing different sports also gives you the opportunity to play different positions. For example, you may be well-suited as a forward in field hockey, but tapped to play defense in lacrosse. Shifting into different player mindsets helps elevate your holistic knowledge and understanding of the field and positioning.
Not convinced? USA Field Hockey forward Alyssa Parker notes how the opportunity to play defense contributed to her development as an attacker. “As an attacker, it’s important to be able to see the game from a defender’s point of view, and vice versa,” says Parker. “As an attacker, I try to think about what made me feel vulnerable as a defender and incorporate those tactics into my offensive strategy.”
Still not convinced? “When I play crease defense, I see how I get beat,” echoes Tumolo. “As an attacker, having played defense helps me get into a defender’s head and learn what dodges or angles I need to take to successfully make it to the goal.”
4. An integrated team approach.
Team is at the heart of all sports, and dynamics shift when comparing one sport to another.
For example, in baseball, the individual responsibility of each team member is deeply felt as players step up to bat. In hockey, team chemistry is stretched on a whole other level as players strive to keep up with the pace of the game, cut through the noise and move the puck seamlessly down the ice. In football, the quarterback depends on his blockers to keep him from getting tackled – this gives a whole meaning to the idea of having each other's backs. Engaging with these different dynamics while playing other sports informs a holistic understanding of team.
Not convinced? Playing on different teams also exposes you to different personality types. “When you play multiple sports, you encounter different people, playing styles and perspectives,” says Parker. “You have to learn fast how to work well with people who are different from you. And that’s a valuable skill on the field and in life.”
5. A burnout and injury prevention strategy.
Repeated movement can contribute to muscle overuse, which in turn can make athletes more susceptible to injury. Playing multiple sports is one of the best ways to prevent muscle overuse and guard against physical burn-out.
Not convinced? “As a coach, your first job is to look out for your players,” says Mattes. “In my mind, the greatest value of the multi-sport approach is the health component. Injuries come from your body doing the same motion over and over again – so many could be prevented if we started teaching young athletes how to take care of their bodies. Playing multiple sports is a great way to keep your body in shape, while mixing up your movements and giving key muscles a well-deserved, much-needed break.”
The last word...
By encouraging specialization at a young age, we limit the potential of the next generation of great athletes.
“I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the flashiest player on the field," says Parker. "But I am athletic and I chalk that up to being a multi-sport athlete.” (Seems like it's working for the field hockey forward - she nabbed a spot on Team USA shortly after graduating from the University of Maryland in spring of 2016).
Carpenter, forward for Team USA, sums it up best – “I think playing multiple sports at a young age is very important – it helps develop senses and skills that may be more prominent in one sport than another, and helps you become a more well-rounded athlete.”
For more on supporting the next generation of athletes and cultivating a love for sports, check out our thoughts on the Lacrosse Athlete Development Model (LADM).